“By his daring initiative, marked courage and selfless devotion to duty, Private First Class Ryan served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service,” reads the final paragraph on Don Ryan’s Silver Star, earned in heavy combat in Korea in April, 1952.
Jump ahead seven decades and Ryan is retired in Riverton, Wyoming after a lifetime since that fateful day as an 18-year-old U.S. Marine during the Korean Conflict.
Ryan was born in Rawlins, Wyoming, graduating from Rawlins High School in 1951. An athletic youngster, Ryan played a little at guard for the 1947 State Champion Outlaws as a freshman. A scant four years later he entered Marine boot camp, an abbreviated eight week session designed to get the beleaguered Marine ranks refilled in war torn Korea.
“Enlisted in December 1950, on the buddy system,” Ryan said. “My buddy went early and abandoned me. When I got into boot camp, he was in the platoon just ahead of me. We were both in competition together, he didn’t gain a hell of a lot”
The training at the San Diego Marine Corp Recruiting Depot was abbreviated, but brutal, effective, and designed to get the men ready for battle with the Chinese and North Koreans.
“We stayed until they had enough recruits to form a platoon, about 80 people,” Ryan said. “They jammed us through as quickly as they could, then on to Pendleton for AIT, and then we were shipped off to Korea.”
They were offloaded somewhere above the 38th parallel in December 1951.
“The dock was just being built when we arrived,” Ryan said.
The Carbon County native had just turned 18 in October and was about to spend his first Christmas away from home as a 0311, infantryman, carrying a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle).
“My parents signed me to go in at 17,” Ryan said.
“I was the firepower with my BAR, “Ryan said. “The guy I replaced was named Brown, I spent a week with him in orientation. When he left he asked if he could take old Betsy out and shoot just one more time. I said sure, he went out, put it on full auto and it knocked him on his ass. He was the most embarrassed guy in the outfit. They do have a kick.”
A standard BAR weighs 20 pounds empty, but Ryan’s was modified for the style of combat he faced in Korea.
“It was stripped down without a tripod but was it heavy and we had four clips in a belt,” Ryan said. “Keep in mind, after the last summer in 51 and December, the war was pretty much on hold. We weren’t in combat all the time. We lived in a trench line, 50,000 miles of trench line, our bunkers the first two or three months were all in the trench line. All the activities took place there. We had just a few little skirmishes once in a while.”
The horror of the initial Chinese attack the previous winter when Marines held off 50 Chinese Divisions in a brutal sub-zero assault and ultimate withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir had moved to the place of Corp legend, but Korea remained a hostile, war torn place to be, in spite of the struggling peace talks.
Ryan fought in a variety of situations, at times watching the heavy guns of the US Navy send gigantic 16-inch shells overhead. “We could see the shells when they ignited little pockets of gas in the air above us, then see the explosions and feel the shock when they hit,” Ryan said.
While those daytime battles were challenging enough, the darkness brought on a new level of fear, and the Chinese preferred to attack in the dark.
“It was frightening to be out alone at night,” Ryan said. “I had three fears, being alone, the darkness, and my dad. I left my dad at home and took the other two with me to Korea. The first week by myself I got sick a couple of times since I was so scared, after a while I learned the darkness was my friend.”
Discipline and personal bravery led to his scariest moment as a combat Marine.
“The night I got my Silver Star, I can only remember about half the things that happened. A round hit my helmet, knocked it off.”
Earlier in the day, a patrol was hit hard by the enemy in a rice paddy. The lieutenant in command was badly wounded, and Ryan’s lieutenant Alexander asked for a volunteer for a rescue mission, Ryan’s hand was the first one up. The lieutenant died of his wounds before
Ryan and Alexander could reach him.
“They were trying to get me and Alexander and the dead body out, but we didn’t have smoke. so they shot some Willy Pete (white phosphorus) too close to me, how it didn’t get me I don’t know. I was blinded for 15 minutes and couldn’t see a thing. Temporarily blinded the flash, he continued looking for the lieutenant that had been killed.”
Stumbling through a rice paddy, in the middle of the night under hostile enemy fire, and unable to see, the situation was intense.
“After a little while I hollered at Lt. Alexander, but I couldn’t see where he was. I said I couldn’t see so well. He called back a little bit later and said I got the body, let’s get him out of here, Ryan said. “I followed his sound, my eyesight slowly came back, and I could see the body lying there. His trousers and skivvies were down. My first thought was they had stuffed his privates in his mouth, but they hadn’t. Lt. Alexander pulled his trousers up, cleaned him up and we brought him out.”
Ryan and Alexander returned the dead lieutenant to his unit in the finest traditions of the Marine Corps, to never leave a man behind.
His actions above and beyond the call of duty earned him a Silver Star as Private First Class, Third Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
Ryan has written about his experiences, and wrote of the harrowing conditions in the dark at 30 below zero in a poem he called “10 Things.”
Combat conditions on the Korean Peninsula were different than any war America has ever fought. The Koreans and Chinese preferred to attack in the cover of darkness, but their dietary habits often gave them away.
“The smell, it was very prominent, they ate an awful lot of garlic,” Ryan said. “On my first patrol I was all by myself, hunkered up against a tree and I could smell them 10 to 15 minutes before we saw them. When you’re scared 10 of 15 minutes can be forever. They were close enough they could damn near touch me. Even sometimes at night in the trench, you could pick up a whiff of garlic and know somebody was out there.”
Ryan was in Korea for almost six months, from December 1951 to June 1952.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I enlisted the first Marine division was about half strength. They called up all the reserves. I signed up as an active reserve. In June 1952, when they released all the old retreads (WWII vets) I was in that category and got to go home early. There were quite a few of us that way,” Ryan said. “I was standing on the hill one day, and some guy was yelling, “I’m looking for private Ryan. You’ve got 10 minutes to pack your gear, you’re going home.”
I said “What do I do with the other nine? It took me a little bit longer to say goodbye. Two socks, a pack, one trouser, one shirt, didn’t take long to gather that up. I was lucky, I’d get up every morning during the Vietnam War, thinking they were going to call me up but they never did, it was in the 80s when I received my final discharge. The last time I talked to anyone in the Marine Corp they said just sit in your house and wait for us to call, they never did.”
Back home in Wyoming, he enrolled in the fall of 1952 at the University of Wyoming on the GI Bill.
“My first semester there were 340 Korean veterans on campus, 300 field artillery, and National Guard people that got called up, we all started college on the same day,” Ryan said.
He majored in vocational agriculture, completing a BA but never entered the classroom.
“I didn’t have the personality for it, Ryan said. “I was a little too heavy into curing my PTSD with stuff that came out of a bottle.”
Ryan had all the classic signs of PTSD we recognize today but were ignored in previous generations, including bouts with alcohol.
“In class sometimes, everybody would get bored, and someone in the back would drop a load of books and I’d hit the floor, “Ryan said. “The professor would say it looks like Mr. Ryan is done with class, let’s go home. It took me four years to get over it.”
Even Cowboy football games could produce an episode. “We were all sitting together, there were a lot of people in front of me, a lady in front of me had a tray of drinks. They fired the cannon, and I dropped that lady and was lying under a bunch of people. Nobody told me they fired a cannon after touchdowns, the other guys were all artillery people and it didn’t bother them. They finally started to warn me, and it was ok.”
After UW he took a job as a Range Conservationist with the Bureau of Land Management.
He and his wife Barbara Ann spent 30 years working in Rawlins, Worland, and Lander, Wyoming, then to Vernal, Utah, and on to Malta, and Havre, Montana.
He retired from the BLM after his work in Havre.
“We’d had some trouble with school counselors at Chinook,” Ryan said. “So I went to Northern Montana College for a Masters Degree in career guidance and counseling. I found out you can’t be a counselor unless you have three years as a teacher, they didn’t tell me that.”
He found an opportunity in Riverton, Wyoming at Central Wyoming College.
“I saw an ad for a Gender Equity Counselor under a Perkins Grant,” Ryan said.
He moved to Riverton in 1993 and has remained ever since.
After the grant expired he took various positions at the college, working as CWC Arena director before retiring for good in 1995.
His Marine Corps experience changed his life. “What it changed, in the beginning, was that I became an alcoholic,” Ryan said. “All of sudden I realized what was going on I learned to depend on people, how to read people, and understand people. Discipline is the best program in the world. The Marine Corps gave me that.”
AWARDED FOR ACTIONS
DURING Korean War
Service: Marine Corps
Rank: Private First Class
Battalion: 3d Battalion
Division: 1st Marine Division (Rein.)
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Private First Class Donald F. Ryan (MCSN: 1195224), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving with Company I, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 8 and 9 April 1952. When a combat patrol leader failed to return to friendly lines, Private First Class Ryan immediately volunteered to accompany a rescue party in an attempt to locate the missing man. Fearlessly advancing across an open rice paddy under intense enemy mortar, machine gun and small arms fire, he located the body of the fatally wounded officer and, although a numerically superior enemy force occupied positions at extremely close range, assisted in carrying the casualty back to friendly lines. By his daring initiative, marked courage and selfless devotion to duty, Private First Class Ryan served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.